“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning… It is a longing for home.”
Hermann Hess, ‘Wandering’
There is a piece of land which has taught me magic. I love this piece of land and it loves me back, most of the time. It contains soft heaves of arable downland as well as ancient woodland. There is an Anglo-Saxon church that stands alone in a field. A very old, if not ancient, yew grove adds shadow to the forest on the gentle slopes behind, but there are also lighter passages of birch and beech, small plantations of cypress, and there are footpaths from the road to the woods that follow hedgerows of Blackthorn and Elder, Hawthorn and Hazel. On hazy summer days Kites and Buzzards become Kings of the sky and move through convections of air along the length of the valley. On days of snow the trees are like spokes of iron in some ancient wheel, driven hard into the ice-burnt soil. In a secret place in the woods is a subtle rise of earth, invisible except with the airborne lasers of the archaeologists, where Roman pottery in flint-speckled black lumps litters the ground beneath the wild garlic. There is a balance here that has swayed back and forth like wind-bent trees over centuries, millennia even, but always anchored in strong earth. To anyone with an ear to hear, and an eye to see, there is a vast biome of both species and spirits in this landscape on the South Downs.
I have worked with the spirits of this place for years. I have eaten the plants of the forest making it a part of me. I have dyed my clothes from its leaves. Deer and Hare and Kite have guided and welcomed me. Guardian Yews have taught me about silence and depth. And most of all a strange, ancient spirit grabbed my attention, who might as well be named the Genius Loci, who was once human, and probably a magician for his people, and who, through trauma and insanity, over archaeological lengths of time has become one with the land and left something of being human behind. This spirit was wild and sometimes violent and spoiled for a fight as much as he ached for attention. We fought. We talked. We loved. This is the landscape that I love. And then, like in any number of children’s books, ‘the men came’.
If you imagine the book illustrators of the 1930s creating thick black silhouettes, threatening and angled, machines and men, clearing spaces and erecting drills, that would be how the foreboding felt that came with the news that the oil men had arrived. Exploratory drilling began, and the familiar pattern of corporate interest and local resistance began to be drawn across the woods. A campaign group was convened, and fundraising began for legal advice, for legal action, for publicity and for environmental surveys to combat the spin of the oil company. They performed an astonishing service and over a period of two and more years successfully fought off the company. At this point the company has been declared in breach of its license, and has been ordered to restore the land. It couldn’t have been a better outcome for an environmentally motivated campaign.
So what does a magician do, alone in the woods? Curse them. Curse them all! Taking thin lead, from a roll designed to go on roofs, and an iron nail and a hammer and a small screwdriver as a stylus, you might be surprised at the effort required to scratch your curse onto even a soft metal. Not a little of the magician’s own blood was scraped alongside the letters. The curse is called out loud. The language is fierce and begins with a call to the Genius Loci (and others tablets were graven too, calling to other spirits). Let everyone who imagines a drill in this earth feel it as though a drill is in their teeth. Let the earth be bound tight as stone and break their drills like it breaks their will. Let the money run from their counting houses as the oil runs beneath the land. May their blood be black and thick as oil. By the time the magician has sweated and bled a little, folds the lead with those sore hands, and rams a nail through it in anger there is an atmosphere in the forest of stirring and angry alertness.
Defixiones are an ancient form and one that was practised from end to end of the Greco-Roman world. Most commonly disposed of in deep water or caves, the sense of offering the plea for help into the other world in a chthonic, wet, or liminal place has echoes with the archaeological record going much further back, into the iron age and beyond. In Uley in Gloucestershire the most beautiful face of Mercury inspired someone called Honoratus, 1800 years ago to cry out for help when his cows and wheels were stolen, “do not allow health to the person that has done me wrong, nor allow him to lie or sit or drink or eat… unless he brings my property to me and is reconciled with me.” The site was holy even before Mercury and so he stands in a line of beings, maybe gods, who have been sought there before. Another asks Mercury as patron of place to “exact vengeance for the gloves that have been lost; that he take blood and health from the person that has stolen them.” In Bath at the magical springs the people offered tablets to Sulis Minerva cursing those who had harmed them. Some wrote in cursive, some in capitals, most left no room between the words and some wrote backwards, or even alternately backwards and forwards and then came the folding and mashing and offering in the waters. It felt a right and righteous thing to do in a threatened forest to carve and shout such curses into the other realm. There is a shape here and one which tastes familiar, it is the shape of a lot of magic.
Consider the sigils of the chaos magician. A desired end is formed into a symbol, through letters. Symbols are not signs. A sign only points to something else: a symbol contains something of that which is symbolised. The straightforward desire ‘to rid this forest of oil seekers’ is symbolic as soon as it is written down. The movement of that symbol into the realm of wider consciousness, the realm of spirits, is done by the familiar process of playing with letters, just as the defixiones is folded over and over on itself. In both processes the symbolic representation of the desired end is made less graspable, it is let go.
Then the chaos magician takes the sigil and gives it a hard push, in the ecstasy of sex or the expanded consciousness of drugs, or in the trance states of meditation or even sleep, the sigil is ‘activated’. Of late, even in the realm of Chaos Magick, that process has often been moved back under the purview of gods and saints and spirits and ancestors. Could it be that the hyperbolic language of the defixiones is not literal but rather a way to massively heighten the emotional charge of speaking the curse aloud? Could it be that the curse is given that hard push by the ecstasy of rage? The same with the violence of thrusting a nail through the lead, a destruction of literal meaning and a pushing of the symbolic language into the realm of spirits.
So, the magician in the woods has aligned himself to the spirits he has shouted to. After the defixiones have been buried, plunged into stagnant pools, or wrapped in the roots of the oldest trees, there is a new air moving in the green. The visible manifestation of the spirits of the woods increases and more and more the corner of the eye catches things which are neither flora nor fauna, at least in the understanding of the naturalist. A human sized creature with the appearance of black, buffeted flame, comes to the journeying magician and plays angry word games; guardian trees make angry tapping noises; a burnt young man runs naked between the trees half mad with dance and pain. The sense of waking-up is palpable.
There is a way of looking at curses such as this which sees the magician simply getting their way by petitioning the help of spirts, the gods, or the Genii Locorum yet, as a tool of protection, there is a different dynamic. Honoratus might have hoped that Mercury would cause vile things to happen to his thief because of his gift of devotion: the magician in the woods stands in different relation, neither compelling nor begging favour. This is common cause. A curse becomes a scream to a friend in sudden danger: “Move! Run!” as the train comes hurtling around the corner. The curse is a bridge. How are the spirits of a forest, with an apprehension of the world so different to our own, often so slow in thought in movement, who are concerned with nothing but “to fulfil themselves according to their own laws” as Herman Hesse said of the trees, how are they to really understand the threat of drills and machines much less what to do in the face of them? The magician’s voice, heightened emotion, and physical effort is an act of solidarity that says to the spirits of the forest here are some lines for you to run along: use my consciousness to understand, and to know how to act.
Steering as clear as possible of grand universal claims it seems there is a shape here that much of magic uses. Why do sigils and defixiones and other magics work? A best guess is that they are a function of human language and the symbolic thinking that it requires. The language of that ‘other place’ is symbolic and we reach it through words, through dreams, through artwork, through the sympathy of one thing with another when we make our charms, through the symbols of divination both vague and precise at the same time, and even through the symbol set of the grimoires’ circles, swords, pentacles and ritual behaviours. It uses that part of our consciousness capable of, or perhaps incapable of not, touching other dimensions where more is possible than the materialist dreams. This is the language the spirits speak, or at least it is the language we share.